How Hard is RN-TO-MSN Program – (10 Biggest Challenges & How to Overcome)

Written By: Darby Faubion, RN, BSN, MBA

Are you a registered nurse ready to move your career to the next level? Have you considered getting an advanced degree and becoming a nurse practitioner or perhaps becoming a nursing executive or administrator? If you earn a master’s degree in nursing, those options are possible. Perhaps you thought of earning your master’s in nursing but wonder, “How hard is RN-TO-MSN program?”

In this article, I will share information with you about MSN programs and tell you about the 10 biggest challenges you will face in RN-TO-MSN programs and how to overcome them. I will also answer some frequently asked questions about these programs. By the time you finish reading, you will have enough information to decide if the challenges of earning an MSN are worth it for you.


Most nursing faculty and nursing students will tell you that RN-to-MSN programs are hard to complete. In these programs, you will take undergraduate and graduate-level nursing courses, learn advanced clinical nursing and leadership skills, and complete in-depth clinical practicums. You will be challenged to think critically and make important decisions regarding patient care and how your teams work together.

Although there are challenges to RN-to-MSN programs, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of success. Pace yourself by creating a schedule that includes not only study time but also time for family and self-care. Do your best to complete assignments and tests on or before their due dates to reduce the risk of falling behind. Also, if you feel yourself struggling, reach out to your academic advisors and instructors. Despite RN-to-MSN programs being complicated, if you have the drive and determination to earn a Master of Science in Nursing, you can succeed!


(The following are the 10 biggest challenges you will face in RN-TO-MSN program and ways you can successfully overcome them.)

CHALLENGE #1: Admission to RN-to-MSN Programs is Competitive

About the Challenge:

One of the challenges that makes an RN-to-MSN program hard is actually getting into the program. The admission process is competitive, which means you must step up your game if you want to get into a top school.

How to Overcome:

If you want to get into a good RN-to-MSN program, you need to do more than aim for meeting the minimum admission requirements. Find out the criteria for admission at each of the schools that interest you. Then, work to go above and beyond the minimum standards. For example, if the school requires you to have a college GPA of 3.0 or higher, aim for an average of 3.5.

CHALLENGE #2: Finding the Right School

About the Challenge:

One of the top things that makes an RN-to-MSN program hard is finding the right school to pursue your degree. There are many nursing schools that offer RN-to-MSN programs, so it may take some research to find the school that is right for you.

How to Overcome:

You can narrow down the search for the right nursing school by taking a few factors into consideration. First, in what time limit do you want to accomplish your MSN? By knowing how long you are willing to dedicate to school, you can choose schools whose programs fit within that time. Another factor to consider is if you want to pursue a specialization and, if so, which schools offer an MSN specialty option that interests you.

CHALLENGE #3: The Programs Can Be Expensive

About the Challenge:

Another challenge that makes an RN-to-MSN program hard is the cost. Because the programs require such a significant time commitment to studying and completing clinical practicums, many students find it challenging to continue working while enrolled. Unless you have saved money to pay for your degree or have other sources of financial assistance, the expense can become overwhelming.

How to Overcome:

If you are concerned about whether you can afford to pay for your master’s nursing program, you should consider options to help offset expenses now. The first step you should follow is to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application is used to determine your eligibility to receive federal funds to pay for college. Many schools offer scholarships, grants, and work-study opportunities for students enrolling in their nursing programs. Also, there are many private grants and scholarship opportunities.

CHALLENGE #4: RN-to-MSN Programs Are Mentally Challenging

About the Challenge:

One reason RN-to-MSN programs are hard is they require true mental toughness. In your program, you will spend long hours learning heavy course content, preparing projects, and completing clinical practicums that may have irregular or unpredictable schedules.

How to Overcome:

Mental challenges do not have to lead to failure, but you do need to find ways to face the challenges head-on. To guard yourself against mental fatigue, create a study schedule that gives you plenty of time to learn the content instead of trying to cram it all into a late-night study session. Also, if you begin to feel overwhelmed, take some time to relax and unwind. You are no good to your patients, peers, or yourself if you do not take care of yourself.

CHALLENGE #5: Take Care of ME? Are you Kidding?

About the Challenge:

Once you begin pursuing your master’s degree, you may feel like there is little time for much else. From attending lectures, studying, completing assignments, and participating in clinicals, there seems to be no end to the things you must accomplish. For many students, one of the things that makes RN-to-MSN programs hard is they feel school responsibilities take up so much time that they do not have time to focus on the things they need.

How to Overcome:

No matter how many notecards need to be made, no matter how many tests are scheduled, and no matter how early you must arrive at clinicals, you still need to take care of yourself. You may not have time to go on a long vacation or go out to dinner with friends a few times each week. However, you can be intentional about taking time to care for yourself. Always keep in mind that if you are not well-rested and healthy, caring for others will become difficult, if not impossible. Practice self-care by eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, and getting plenty of rest and sleep to help maintain your own health.

CHALLENGE #6: There is So Much to Learn

About the Challenge:

RN-to-MSN programs are hard because they have a rigorous curriculum. In these programs, you will learn advanced nursing content as well as complete several hundreds of hours of clinical practicum.

How to Overcome:

There is no way of getting around the content you must learn in an RN-to-MSN program. To succeed, you must commit yourself to studying hard and mastering essential skills to master's level nursing. I always encourage nursing students to find study partners or form a study group, if possible. If you take online classes, you can create an online study group. Even if you are more of a visual learner, you can spend some time studying with peers, which allows you to get ideas and viewpoints that you may not have concluded on your own.

CHALLENGE #7: Clinical Practicums Are Very Challenging

About the Challenge:

As if long hours of studying and test-taking were not enough, you also have to deal with the challenges of completing clinicals. In fact, the rigor of clinical practicums is one of the main reasons RN-to-MSN programs are hard.

How to Overcome:

With my experience as a nurse and allied health educator, I know the best way to overcome challenging clinical practicums is to seize every opportunity to learn from your instructors and clinical preceptors. Even though you already have an RN license, it is natural to feel overwhelmed in MSN school. If you look to faculty and preceptors for help and guidance, you can reduce anxiety and overcome the challenges that come with completing your clinical requirements.

CHALLENGE #8: Taking on Greater Responsibilities

About the Challenge:

When you decide to shift from the role of a registered nurse to an advanced practice registered nurse, you will take on more responsibilities. Whether you pursue a clinical role as a nurse practitioner or prefer a role in healthcare management or administration, you will be expected to take on greater accountability. Learning to transition to more of a leadership role can be challenging and is one of the reasons RN-to-MSN programs are hard.

How to Overcome:

Although taking on more responsibilities can be stressful, program faculty and preceptors are there to guide you and help you develop essential leadership and clinical skills. When given the opportunity to try a new task or lead a project, take the chance. Nursing school is a great place to learn how to handle the responsibilities that come with being an advanced practice registered nurse!

CHALLENGE #9: Admitting You Need Help

About the Challenge:

One of the most common challenges I have seen nursing students face, especially those who are already nurses and pursuing a higher degree, is having to admit they need help. As nurses, it is common for others to ask us for advice or help, thinking we have all the answers. However, no one nurse or nursing student can know everything, and you should never be embarrassed or afraid to admit it when you need help or guidance.

How to Overcome:

Admitting you need help is not admitting failure. It simply means you do not know how to do something, or you are too busy to get everything done that needs to be done in a timely manner. It is always best to reach out for help when school becomes difficult or challenging. Remember, your instructors, advisors, and preceptors are there to help you learn and grow!

CHALLENGE #10: Choosing an MSN Specialty

About the Challenge:

Another thing that makes an RN-to-MSN program hard for some people is deciding which specialty to pursue. You may decide to pursue an APRN specialty, such as becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist or Nurse Practitioner, or you could choose a non-APRN specialty and become a Nurse Educator, Nurse Researcher, or Nurse Informaticist.

How to Overcome:

One of the things I love about nursing is there is no limit to the career opportunities you have! Before choosing an MSN specialty, I recommend thinking about what interests you most. For example, do you enjoy providing direct care to patients? If so, an APRN specialty could be a great fit. On the other hand, if you like technology and research, a non-APRN specialty may be worth pursuing.


If you are a registered nurse considering earning your master’s degree in nursing, one of the most pressing questions you have is probably, “How hard is an RN-to-MSN program?" In this article, I answered that question and shared the 10 biggest challenges you will face in RN-TO-MSN program and how to overcome them. With hard work, you can earn a Master of Science in Nursing and take your career to the next big level!

If, after reading this article, you feel like earning an MSN is the path you wish to pursue, I want to encourage you to get started today. There are endless opportunities for master’s-prepared nursing, and the profession needs dedicated nurses like you!


1. How Long Does RN-TO-MSN Program Take?

RN-to-MSN programs typically take between 18 months and three years to complete. The main factor that determines how long it will take you to graduate is whether you enroll in the program as a part-time or full-time student.

2. Is It Normal To Struggle In RN-TO-MSN Program?

RN-to-MSN programs are hard, and some students do struggle. However, just because you face challenges, that does not mean you cannot work hard, maintain your focus, and earn that degree!

3. Which Year Of RN-TO-MSN Program Is The Hardest?

It is truly a matter of opinion which year of an RN-to-MSN program is the hardest. Many students struggle in the first year because it requires getting back into the habit of studying and creating schedules that accommodate school, work, and family. Other students find that the transition from undergraduate courses to graduate courses in the second year is more difficult. As a nurse and allied health educator, I believe every year of a nursing program has challenges, but I also believe with hard work and determination, you can get through them and succeed.

4. What Are The Hardest Classes In RN-TO-MSN Program?

Some of the most difficult classes that make an RN-to-MSN program hard include Advanced Health Assessment, Pathophysiology, Advanced Pharmacology, and Evidence-Based Practice.

5. How Many Hours Do I Need To Study In RN-TO-MSN Program?

Students learn at different paces and require different amounts of study based on their learning styles, which means the hours they need to study may differ from other students. As a nurse and allied health instructor, myself and my colleagues usually recommend that students spend a minimum of three hours studying for each credit hour for which they are enrolled. For example, if you enroll in 10 credit hours, you should plan to spend a minimum of 30 hours each week dedicated to studying.

6. Is It Hard To Work During RN-TO-MSN Program?

RN-to-MSN programs are hard and require a lot of time studying and completing clinicals. While it is possible to work while enrolled in one of these programs, it takes careful planning and good time management skills. I recommend talking with both your academic advisor and your employer to discuss scheduling options that work best for you.

7. What Percent Of RN-TO-MSN Students Drop Out?

The average attrition or dropout rate for RN-to-MSN students is 33%, which means one in every three students leaves the program for some reason.

8. Is It Common To Fail RN-TO-MSN Program?

Some students do fail in RN-to-MSN programs. However, because each student is different, you should never gauge your likelihood of success based on someone else’s success or failure.

9. What Next After Failing RN-TO-MSN Program?

The next step after failing an RN-to-MSN program depends on you. If you genuinely want to earn a Master of Science in Nursing, do not give up! Make an appointment to talk with your academic advisor or the program director to discuss options for repeating classes. You may also consider pursuing an RN to BSN program and later earn your MSN. Conversely, if you feel earning your MSN is too challenging, you may decide to earn a specialty nursing certification or follow an altogether different career path.

Darby Faubion, RN, BSN, MBA
Darby Faubion is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty years of experience. She has assisted in developing curriculum for nursing programs and has instructed students at both community college and university levels. Because of her love of nursing education, Darby became a test-taking strategist and NCLEX prep coach and assists nursing graduates across the United States who are preparing to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).